- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

The Bush administration yesterday distanced itself from a private American delegation’s plan to visit North Korea’s most sensitive nuclear site, saying it was focused instead on multilateral efforts to get the North to give up nuclear weapons programs.

White House and State Department officials said the U.S. government’s efforts in the Korean Peninsula crisis remained focused on getting a new round of six-nation talks convened in Beijing.

The talks, which involve North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia, have been on hold since a brief, unproductive meeting in Beijing in August.

“It should be clearly understood that groups or individuals acting outside the six-party talks would not be acting on behalf of, or with the approval of, the administration,” said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. government “neither facilitated nor opposed” the visit and had not been consulted before details of the trip were made public.

Although he said he could not predict how the visit might affect ongoing diplomatic efforts, Mr. Ereli added, “Certainly any efforts that complicate prospects or undertakings to reconvene the six-party talks and to achieve forward movement in dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program aren’t helpful.”

It was not clear yesterday who proposed the trip, but wire-service dispatches said North Korea agreed it had allowed the delegates to visit.

The private delegation, set to travel to Pyongyang next week, reportedly will visit Yongbyon, the nuclear power plant about 60 miles from the North Korean capital that has been at the heart of U.S. concerns about a drive by North leader Kim Jong-il to manufacture nuclear bombs.

The U.S. team would be the first outsiders to visit the facility since the North expelled U.N. monitors more than a year ago.

North Korea has not commented on the proposed trip, and members of the delegation have cautioned that the visit to Yongbyon might not happen.

Japan’s Kyodo news service reported yesterday that the delegation will brief officials in South Korea and Japan after the North Korea visit ends Jan. 10.

Members of the delegation, first reported in yesterday’s USA Today, include Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear-proliferation specialist who headed the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico for almost a decade, and Charles L. “Jack” Pritchard, who was the Bush administration’s top diplomat on North Korean negotiations before abruptly leaving the government just ahead of the August talks in Beijing.

Keith Luse and Frank Jannuzi, the top Republican and Democratic staffers on East Asian policy for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also will travel to North Korea, although it was not clear yesterday whether they formally would be part of the group with Mr. Hecker.

The United States accuses North Korea of secretly enriching uranium to acquire nuclear weapons in violation of a 1994 accord.

The Bush administration has rejected Pyongyang’s demands for an immediate nonaggression pledge and new economic aid until the North junks its nuclear programs and lets international monitors back into the country.

Pyongyang said Sunday it was ready for a new round of talks in Beijing, but the U.S. government has said the North continues to place unacceptable “preconditions” on the negotiations.

Some analysts speculate that the secretive communist state is eager to showcase its operations at Yongbyon in order to heighten the pressure on Washington and its East Asian allies for a deal.

Pyongyang has said it has completed reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods at Yongbyon — enough plutonium for a half-dozen atomic bombs. U.S. intelligence analysts suspect North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs.

The White House let its opposition be known to a planned congressional delegation trip to North Korea last fall. The delegation, led by Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican and vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was to meet with Mr. Kim and visit Yongbyon. Mr. Weldon canceled the trip.

Mr. Pritchard, now a researcher with the Brookings Institution, has talked since leaving government of deep, unresolved divisions within the administration over how tough a line to take with North Korea.

“There have been such a wide range of views within the administration on how to deal with this,” he said in an interview with Arms Control Today in October, “that after 2 years, [they] have been unable to bring this into a single, focused effort.”

Mr. Luse and Mr. Jannuzi have made previous fact-finding trips to North Korea, including one in August and September on the humanitarian and food crises afflicting the North.

The two, in a subsequent staff report, said they found deep suspicion among North Korean officials about U.S. intentions and said government officials think the Bush administration has been cutting food and aid shipments in recent months as a way to pressure the North.

Last year, the Bush administration agreed to send about 100,000 tons of food to the North compared with about 300,000 tons in 2002.

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